If the mere sight of tater tots on the school lunch line was enough to combat the heartbreak of being chosen last in gym class, you’re in luck: When Café Robey recently translated to an upscale diner approach, chef Michael Elliott decided he had to revisit this crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside childhood fave.
“This dish reminds me a lot of the loaded hash browns that I used to eat as a kid at Denny’s,” he says of the loaded tots that now grace his all-day menu. “It also serves as a delicious shareable appetizer that spans into the night.”
These homemade tots don’t start in the freezer aisle. Instead, you’ll begin by baking whole potatoes until they’re par-cooked and have rendered some of their moisture.
“Cooking the potatoes brings out the starches to help bind the tots,” explains Elliott. “But we only cook them halfway, so when you fry them, they’re soft and fluffy on the inside, but not mushy.”
Once peeled and shredded, they’re seasoned with salt and Elliott’s secret ingredient: gelatin bloomed in a touch of milk.
“The gelatin allows the potatoes to bind so we can cut them and hold their shape while frying,” he explains. “They may not be traditional, but they make them foolproof!”
These steps are perhaps best carried out the day before, as the mixture needs to be weighted down and chilled for four hours for maximum structural integrity. Is it a time investment? Sure. Does it pay off with crispy squares that hold together in all their golden glory? Absolutely. And they’d better, seeing as Elliott showers them with all manner of delicious toppings.
Shredded cheddar cheese is the first addition, melted slightly in the oven to gooey perfection. Using a milder cheddar, he says, keeps the cheese from overwhelming the rest of the flavors in the dish, namely the fresh scallions, crispy Nueske’s bacon and homemade buttermilk ranch drizzle.
It’s almost enough to make us nostalgic for middle school. (Almost.)
Smothered Potato Tots
- 3½ pounds (6 to 7 medium) potatoes
- 1¼ teaspoons gelatin
- ¼ cup milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Neutral frying oil
- ⅛ cup buttermilk ranch (recipe below)
- ⅛ cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 tablespoon scallions
- 1 tablespoon crispy chopped bacon
Place potatoes in a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes. Potatoes will only be half cooked.
Peel while hot. Grate potatoes using a box grater or food processor.
Mix the gelatin with the milk and heat until the gelatin is just melted.
Add the salt to the milk, then combine the mixture with the warm potatoes.
Mix thoroughly and press into a baking sheet. Place weight on top to compress tots.
Let cool for 4 hours until set. Cut into desired size squares. (At Café Robey, they cut into 1 ½-inch squares.)
When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 400º F, and heat the oil to 350º F. Add the tots and cook for four to five minutes, or until crispy and golden brown.
Drain the tots and place in an oven-proof dish. Top with cheese and melt in the hot oven. Plate and garnish with bacon and scallions, and drizzle with ranch.
This article was featured in the InsideHook Chicago newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Windy City.